There’s much to see and do, eat and ex­plore around Christchurch, re­ports Leonie Coombes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

Christchurch’s spec­tac­u­lar sur­rounds of­fer vis­i­tors a host of ac­tiv­i­ties in­clud­ing horse-rid­ing at Ter­race Down, main pic­ture; right, from top, Lake Tekapo, Akaroa, jetboating in Rakaia Gorge, Otahuna Lodge HE South Is­land of New Zealand is about 800km long and holds at least 12 times more sheep than peo­ple. Be care­ful that your itin­er­ary isn’t also a wee bit woolly. Con­cen­trate on one re­gion of­fer­ing plenty of variety and take it slowly, es­pe­cially when mo­tor­ing. With its many fa­mous fea­tures and hid­den trea­sures, Can­ter­bury is a per­fect choice.

This cen­tral re­gion fans out from the east coast to­ward the Alps. To con­vey the im­age of its al­lu­vial, patch­work plains and green hills, fol­low one di­rec­tive: think of Eng­land. Clearly, the dis­trict’s founders did.

The rural city of Christchurch, named af­ter an Ox­ford col­lege, is en­twined by the Avon River. In the Botanic Gar­dens row­ers pass­ing oak and wil­low prob­a­bly for­get they are closer to the South Pole than to Bri­tain.

Those en­thralled by Antarc­tica will find Christchurch has plenty on of­fer. Near the air­port is the In­ter­na­tional Antarc­tic Cen­tre, pro­vid­ing chilly en­ter­tain­ment, in­clud­ing the Snow and Ice Ex­pe­ri­ence. Here padded vis­i­tors can brave ex­treme po­lar weather or wimp out in an ice cave.

In the town proper, Can­ter­bury Mu­seum houses Antarc­tic mem­o­ra­bilia, such as the Sno­cat and Fer­gu­son trac­tor utilised by Vi­vian Fuchs and Ed­mund Hil­lary in the 1958 trans-Antarc­tic ex­pe­di­tion. By com­par­i­son, the penknife Roald Amund­sen used to sharpen his flagstaff on ar­rival at the South Pole has a boy scouts qual­ity to it.

A statue of Robert Fal­con Scott stand­ing in Ox­ford Ter­race has a story of its own. Sculpted by his wife, one leg and arm re­main un­fin­ished be­cause of a dis­pute over her fee; an amount that now looks tri­fling for such a mov­ing ef­figy.

His­toric Warn­ers Ho­tel ac­com­mo­dated many Antarc­tic ex­plor­ers, in­clud­ing Scott and Ernest Shack­le­ton. In 1901 it hosted a farewell din­ner for Scott be­fore he left on his first jour­ney, and the menu still adorns the wall. Lamb, pi­geon, hare, floun­der, duck­ling, tongue and tri­fle are only some of the cour­ses that were prob­a­bly re­called wist­fully on the ice. Though re­fur­bished, Warn­ers re­tains its 19th-cen­tury at­mos­phere.

So too does the vi­brant Arts Cen­tre, a col­lec­tion of shops and cafes oc­cu­py­ing neogothic build­ings spread around open squares. Brows­ing here can fill hours, es­pe­cially on week­ends when an out­door mar­ket with more than 80 stalls is held in all weather.

Like a coun­try ma­tron af­ter a ki­wifruit daiquiri, Christchurch loosens up af­ter dark. His Lord­ships Lane, for­merly a derelict ware­house area, is now packed with in­ti­mate restau­rants and bars host­ing live bands. Fat Ed­die’s, a mecca for jazz lovers, packs in the crowds ev­ery night.

Christchurch is such an en­gross­ing place there is a temp­ta­tion to ven­ture no fur­ther. But if the prospect of good roads pass­ing through sen­sa­tional coun­try­side en­tices you, this won’t be a thorny is­sue.

Thorny is­sues be­long, in fact, in Ti­maru, south of Christchurch. The Trevor Grif­fiths Rose Gar­den near the wa­ter at Caro­line Bay dis­plays old va­ri­eties and mod­ern crosses from David Austin while Ti­maru Botanic Gar­dens has New Zealand’s largest col­lec­tion of species roses. Prune your sched­ule to visit the Rose Fes­ti­val from Novem­ber 26-30.

Some of us, how­ever, would rather stop and smell the grapes. Most of Can­ter­bury’s vine­yards are sit­u­ated in the stun­ning Waipara Val­ley, an hour north of Christchurch, but a few bou­tique es­tab­lish­ments hide else­where. West of Ti­maru at Pleas­ant Point is Opihi Vine­yard, liv­ing up to its Maori name, which means good growth.

Lunch on the sunny veranda of an 1882 lime­stone cafe, pinot noir in hand, can eas­ily stretch into the af­ter­noon.

Min­utes away is Cen­tre Hill Cot­tage Farm, a fam­ily-sized bun­ga­low with a lawn ten­nis court and whim­si­cal touches for guests, such as the com­pli­men­tary bas­ket of or­ganic pro­duce and out­door bath­tub for star-gaz­ing. (Just ig­nore the sheep star­ing at you. To them you’re part of a mi­nor­ity group.)

Through vivid green fields, pine hedgerows and wav­ing flax I veer north­west to glacier- fed Lake Tekapo. Its milky-blue colour, caused by sun­light strik­ing sus­pended rock par­ti­cles in the wa­ter, is ar­rest­ing. On the shore stands the tiny Chapel of the Good Shep­herd, a stony me­mo­rial to lo­cal pi­o­neers. A heav­enly view of the lake, framed by a win­dow be­hind the pul­pit, must be ap­pre­ci­ated dur­ing dull ser­mons.

Lake Tekapo looks even bet­ter from the top of nearby Mt John, a space ob­ser­va­tory orig­i­nally es­tab­lished by the US in the 1960s and now con­trolled by Can­ter­bury Univer­sity. Here are the dark­est night skies in New Zealand. Tours of the fa­cil­ity are run by Trekkies (some­how you can just tell) who be­come an­i­mated over tele­scopes and white spat­ter on com­puter screens. Drive 300m up Mt John’s windy peak or join stick-wield­ing, rosy-cheeked ram­blers who huff to the top and col­lapse over a hot choco­late at the ex­cel­lent Astro Cafe.

Go even higher with Air Sa­faris, which of­fers tours of the Alps in planes with large in­di­vid­ual win­dows. Pi­lots de­liver a com­men­tary while starkly beau­ti­ful but for­bid­ding glaciers and moun­tains loom up. Mt Cook’s peak is re­vealed in breath­tak­ing de­tail and a 50-minute tra­verse leaves even sea­soned trav­ellers wide-eyed.

Re­luc­tantly re­turned to ground, I suc­cumb to the com­forts of the new Pep­pers Blue­wa­ter Re­sort at Lake Tekapo Vil­lage. Its well­fur­nished vil­las with kitchens and flat-screen tele­vi­sions par­tic­u­larly ap­peal to fam­i­lies.

About one hour’s drive west of Christchurch is lux­u­ri­ous Ter­race Downs High Coun­try Re­sort, an 18-hole golf course over­looked by the South­ern Alps. Beau­ti­fully ap­pointed chalets adorn this se­cluded re­treat near lo­ca­tions that fea­tured in The Lord of the Rings film tril­ogy. Non-golfers are catered for with walk­ing, horse-rid­ing, archery and even thrill-seek­ing.

In one breath­less morn­ing I en­joy putting lessons on the green and a he­li­copter tour. The chop­per buzzes over Mt Hutt, where fa­mously long runs make it a pop­u­lar ski­ing des­ti­na­tion. Guests at Ter­race Downs can book he­li­copter rides to the slopes, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to ski and golf in one day.

I land back on the fair­way feel­ing elated, but there’s more. Min­utes away on the icy blue wa­ters of Rakaia Gorge a throb­bing jet­pow­ered boat with a grin­ning driver is wait­ing. Salmon fish­er­men look on mourn­fully. My con­science is pricked, but ever so briefly. Scream­ing with ner­vous laugh­ter, our group of five cling on for dear life as driver Jim zooms through shal­lows, hur­tles at lime­stone walls and chucks the boat into a spin that throws glacial melt in our faces.

It’s a hard act to fol­low but a more sub­dued kind of boat­ing awaits at Akaroa, an hour south of Christchurch on the Banks Penin­sula. Cata­ma­ran cruises around the har­bour re­veal rare Hec­tor dol­phins, seals and pen­guins, as well as some fas­ci­nat­ing ge­ol­ogy. This play­ground for marine life is the caldera of a long ex­tinct vol­cano that grad­u­ally ad­mit­ted sea­wa­ter.

Sev­eral mil­lion years later, French whalers set­tled in Akaroa and left their mark in the ar­chi­tec­ture and restau­rants. The vil­lage de­mands leisurely ex­plo­ration and Matua Gar­den Re­treat, a ro­man­tic B&B in the hills over­look­ing the har­bour, pro­vides a homely base for sight­see­ing.

This could be the be­gin­ning in­stead of the end. Can­ter­bury has so much to of­fer that no itin­er­ary can in­clude it all. It pro­vides a rea­son to re­turn here be­cause, rather like the sheep pop­u­la­tion, op­por­tu­ni­ties for plea­sure just keep ex­pand­ing. Leonie Coombes was a guest of Christchurch and Can­ter­bury Tourism. www.fes­ti­val­ www.cen­tre­hill­cot­ www.ter­race­ www.pep­ www.mat­u­a­gar­

Pic­tures: Leonie Coombes

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